Obama’s UN Climate Vow Needs Court Wins, Cheap Natural Gas

(Bloomberg) — President Barack Obama’s pledge to the

United Nations Tuesday to sharply cut greenhouse-gas emissions

relies on being able to rebuff legal and legislative challenges

— and the continuing availability of cheap natural gas.

It’s no slam dunk. A coal-industry suit over the

Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to force reductions in

emissions from power plants is set for argument in federal court

next month, and Republican leaders are prodding states to refuse

to implement the rules in any case. More court challenges are

likely after the rule gets finalized this year.

Efforts to cut methane emissions from oil and gas drilling,

raise mileage standards for trucks and increase the efficiency

of household appliances all face their own challenges, and some

may be undone by a future president who doesn’t share Obama’s

conviction that fighting global warming should be a top


“The administration is taking the first steps,” said

Peter Ogden, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress

in Washington and former White House climate adviser. “The

challenge for getting all the way there will be one for future

administrations and future Congresses.”

Obama, who made fighting climate change a priority in his

second term, submitted Tuesday a plan he outlined in November to

slash U.S. greenhouse gases by more than a quarter over the next

decade. The filing with the UN is intended to boost talks among

190 nations that are set to conclude in Paris this December with

an agreement on how each nation will tackle the issue in 2020

and beyond.

Emissions Increase

The U.S. promised to cut its greenhouse-gas emissions 26

percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. U.S. emissions

are already down more than 10 percent from 2005, although the

independent Energy Information Administration predicts emissions

will increase, not fall, over the next decade.

The White House said the cuts can be achieved because of

the EPA’s proposal to get states to cut emissions from power

plants, and upcoming rules on methane and refrigerants will

bring about further reductions. The majority of the reductions

in the EPA’s power plant rule comes from switching from coal

power to natural gas, as the fracking boom has made low-cost gas

a strong competitor to coal.

“From an engineering perspective, it’s easy to get those

kinds of cuts,” said Michael Webber, deputy director of the

Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. “We

could ramp up natural gas plants to displace coal.”

Court Test

“The harder part is getting the policymakers to stick with

it,” Webber said. “I’m optimistic, even though I have no

reason to be.”

The power plant rule faces its first court test next month,

and the final rule, set to come out within the next six months,

is likely to be litigated all the way to the Supreme Court, EPA

Administrator Gina McCarthy said Monday. Harvard University law

professor Laurence Tribe, who was hired by coal producer Peabody

Energy Corp., argues the rule violates the Constitution and

should be tossed out by the courts.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from

coal-rich Kentucky, has urged states not to implement plans to

meet the EPA goals, which could complicate the so-called Clean

Power Plan.

“Even if the job-killing and likely illegal Clean Power

Plan were fully implemented, the United States could not meet

the targets laid out in this proposed new plan,” McConnell said

Tuesday in a statement. “Our international partners should

proceed with caution before entering into a binding,

unattainable deal.”

Linchpin Rules

The scope of those power plant rules is the linchpin of the

U.S. pledge because it’s such a large share of emissions, said

John Larsen, a senior analyst at the Rhodium Group in

Washington. “Whatever EPA finalizes will set the tone for

reductions in the power sector.”

Still, not everything relies on these federal policies.

Individual states are pursuing renewable energy and energy

efficiency plans, and falling costs of solar and wind power mean

changes could accelerate, Karl Hausker, a senior fellow at the

World Resources Institute, wrote after the U.S. unveiled this

overall goal last November.

“Innovation and technology also have the potential to

bring down costs and make it easier to meet — or even exceed —

the proposed targets,” he wrote.

To contact the reporter on this story:

Mark Drajem in Washington at


To contact the editors responsible for this story:

Jon Morgan at


Elizabeth Wasserman

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